I Collect: Even My Shirt Is Art!

It's a grim chilly day in Berlin, but it's about to get better because I have a Skype meeting with young American art collector Kelsey Lee Offield. When the camera turns on, the screen is illuminated by her presence. Kelsey welcomes me with a wide Californian smile. Her cut-out t-shirt reveals a great tan. The t-shirt reads: Retardashians.

“Hey, cool T-shirt!”

“You like it? It's from a work by Adam Mars.” 

 I didn't think one could wear an art piece, but she really rocks it.  

“Oh, I remember – he's one of the artists you represent at your gallery?”

 “Yes, but I also collect him.”

 “I can see that.”

 “I have another one of his works in my gym. It´s called Your Twitter Smells.”

Kelsey Lee Offield is a third generation art collector, gallery owner and artist. I met her through common friends but really got to know her a couple of summers ago when she kindly offered to host me at her house during a project I was working on. What intrigues me about Kelsey is the way she lives with her art. When you first enter her house, Kelsey introduces you to the works; she is on a first name basis with the artists and talks about their works as if they were members of her family. "This is Tara, this is Jonny,"—she means Tara Donavan and Jonathan Yeo. I remember bending to pat Gus, her English bulldog, and almost bumping into a work by Christian Boltanski, under which Gus was taking a nap. 

Artparasites: I know you are a third generation collector. How did it all start?

Kelsey Lee OffieldIt started with my grandparents. They lived in a small town in Northern Michigan called Harbor Springs and half of their house was a studio. My grandfather was a tapestry artist and my grandmother did pottery. She was also an avid art collector; a true patron.  For her it was never about building a collection or having  prestige; it was about being a patron of the artists. She even founded an organization called "Crooked Tree Arts Center" in Petoskey Michigan and what they do is to create, stimulate and perpetuate the arts in North Michigan. 

The collector's bedroom with artwork by Chantal Joffe (L), Jonathan Yeo and Enrique Tabara. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lee Offield.

APs: How about your parents?

KLOMy parents are both into collecting. My father has a soft spot for California Impressionism. He cannot resist a Duncan Gleason. He also really loves Native American art and anything that deals with fishing and boats. It is funny because he happens to be married to a woman who is a contemporary art painter, and when you go to their house you can immediately identify who put what on the wall; they have such different aesthetics.

APs: How come he collects fishing related art?

KLOI grew up on Catalina Island just off the coast of California. 98% of the island is put into a conservancy. Conservation has been a really important passion for my family. My father has dedicated a lot of time and energy to scientific research of deep sea fish.

APs: It must have been wonderful to grow up in a place like that.

KLOIt was surreal. I learned to swim before I learned how to walk. We would walk home every day. It was a lot of fun for me and my brothers.

APs: And yourself, what kind of work do you collect?

KLO: I collect work that I have a connection with. It's usually love at first sight for me. I also love to find young artists that I believe have really strong practice, work ethic and concept—I might collect at their studio or group show before they have any representation.

APs: Would you share with us where the name of your gallery comes from? 

KLO: "Gusford" is the name of my English bulldog. Because I also work as an artist, I didn't want the gallery to have an association with my practice. I wanted to make it clear that its purpose is not to showcase my own work. It is an entirely different entity. I wanted the name to be anonymous. 

Kelsey Lee Offield with Gusford, her dog, along with artwork by Adam Mars. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lee Offield.

But what I find hilarious is that people who have known me for years, now forget that my name is Kelsey Lee Offield. This year Art Basel put Kelsey Lee Gusford on my card. I get mail to Kelsey Lee Gusford all the time and it melts my heart, I love it. 

APs: You are at the same time an artist, a collector and a gallery owner. But you are keeping these things separate, if I understand you correctly.

KLO: They are separate, but they are combined. It's hard to explain. I think that my coming from the point of an artist has really helped define what my gallery does and the way I want it to work. I know what it's like being in the studio, coming up with an idea and bringing it to fruition. When it comes to the artists I represent, I like to get very involved with the way things are produced and conceived; the whole process. My artists like that I have this experience. They know I can articulate how the works were produced and empathize with the work. Now of course I collect the artists that I represent because I am very passionate about what they do. Collecting is usually how I discover them. I am grateful to be able to work off what I love.

APs: How do you collect? Do you go to fairs? 

KLO: Oh yes, I travel to all of the fairs, I buy at auctions, I buy at galleries, I go to MFA shows, I do studio visits. People call me and say, “I have this artist, I think you're really going to like it – take a look.”

The collector's dining room: artwork by Hugh Mendes (L), Tara Donovan (on table) and Roxy Payne. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lee Offield.

APs: What are the last works you collected?

KLOActually right this morning I got a piece that I bought while I was in Switzerland by this young German artist, Eckart Hahn. Funny thing happened: it is a wooden table with an axe in it and ironically, while I was installing, the axe dropped and cut my arm.

APs: Oh! Are you ok now? 

KLOYes, it´s not a big cut. But I was thinking: how ironic, just a casualty of my passion of living and loving art. Art is beautiful; they say "beauty is pain."

APs: Does your collection have a theme? Even the gym – what kind of works do you have in your gym?

KLOI just go with my heart. I've had people come over and point out different themes in my collection but these are not things that I consciously do. Each space in my house is curated. The gym has very vibrant pop looking work that gives me energy and inspires me to work a little bit harder. A bright yellow Adam Mars piece, a Peter Blake Pop series, a couple of humorous Ralph Steadmans – fun work. 

The gym of the collector: works to inspire energy. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lee Offield.

APs: And now for facts and figures. How many works do you have in your collection and what are some of the names?

KLOI can honestly tell you that I don't know the number and I won't even hazard a guess. It's kind of large; I have my Tara DonavanRoxy PaineChristian BoltanskiJonathan YeoChantal Joffe a piece from Yinka Shonibare, I also have some Maynard Dixon works from my grandmother, and lots of work from emerging contemporary artists who are making great engaging works of the moment. 

Evening catches me chatting with her about what it's like to work in L.A. and in Europe. Kelsey thinks that in Europe culture is omnipresent, whereas in L.A you have to work a little bit harder to get to it. She considers it her responsibility to make culture available to as many people as possible and be a patron of the arts. I am overwhelmed by her vision and wisdom.

Article by Veronica Ionescu